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Get Ready for Voting Rights Act Review

By Robyn Hagan Cain on February 22, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court has a bold docket this year. Civil rights isn't a topic for the timid, but the Court has taken on several civil rights cases this term.

In October, the Court heard oral arguments about the continued need for affirmative action in public universities. In March, the justices will mull constitutional protections for same sex couples. On February 27, the Court will consider whether the Voting Rights Act is still necessary. The Court's decisions -- especially if the cases consistently rule in favor of or against extending civil rights protections -- could define the Roberts Court.

In the 1960s, Congress decided that federal anti-discrimination laws were not enough to overcome certain state officials' resistance to enforcement of the 15th Amendment. The Justice Department offers this slice of history:

Legislative hearings showed that the Department of Justice's efforts to eliminate discriminatory election practices by litigation on a case-by-case basis had been unsuccessful in opening up the registration process; as soon as one discriminatory practice or procedure was proven to be unconstitutional and enjoined, a new one would be substituted in its place and litigation would have to commence anew. President Johnson signed the resulting legislation into law on August 6, 1965.

Among its provisions, the Act contained special enforcement provisions targeted areas where voting discrimination has been most prevalent. Under Section 5, jurisdictions covered by these special provisions cannot implement any change affecting voting (including a redistricting map) until the Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia determined that the change did not have a discriminatory purpose and would not have a discriminatory effect.

There are nine states, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, as well as numerous counties and townships that are covered under Section 5.

A lot has changed since 1965, why just this month, Mississippi ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, but Congress still believes that the Voting Rights Act is necessary. In 2006, Congress overwhelmingly decided to reauthorize Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act under the pre-existing coverage formula of Section 4(b) of the Act. The question before the Court in Shelby County v. Holder is whether reauthorization exceeded congressional authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, thus violating the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the Constitution.

There's a whole lotta Constitution in this case, folks.

President Obama told SiriusXM host Joe Madison this week that removing the Section 5 oversight requirement would make it harder to give relief to victimized voters, and re-create the case-by-case challenges of the 1960s, The Washington Post reports.

Do you agree? Southern states are understandably annoyed because the Voting Rights Act disproportionately targets the South, but is that inconvenience necessary to preserve voters' rights?

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